In The Driver’s Seat

Two weeks ago, at the start of my first improv class, we went around the room and introduced ourselves and said why we were taking improv. There were a couple seasoned improvisers who had taken classes elsewhere but had recently moved to Boston. There was a professional clown who wanted some non-clown practice. There was an undergrad drama student looking for summer reps. There was a middle-aged woman with a stutter, hoping to become more comfortable speaking in front of others—through a supportive, comedic environment. There was an Uber driver who wanted to break up the monotony of driving all day. There were two night-shift nurses who wanted to laugh and play when not night-shift-nursing. And there was a dweeby, creative writing grad student named Will who had always loved watching comedy but wanted to do more performing comedy.

“I think you’ll find that your writing really benefits from improv in ways you would never imagine.” My teacher was hopeful. I was already hopeful. And I was already drawn to improv as this weird, wonderful counter to writing.

Writing plans and prepares. And then it starts. And then, for me, it continues to plan and prepare, tediously, as it goes. Improv just goes.

Writing’s refreshingly solitary. Improv’s refreshingly collaborative.

Writing, once you hit send, is solid and permanent. Improv, always, is totally ephemeral.

Both require calm, receptive listening: writing listens to your own thoughts and whatever connections they might make, and improv listens to your own thoughts in direct reaction to what someone else has just said or done.

Writing blurts and then goes back to tidy up the blurts, to make sense of the blurts, to shape the blurts into something cohesive and structurally-sound and sturdy. Improv blurts. And listens to the blurts of others. But in the moment, improv doesn’t try to find meaning from the blurts. It just blurts.

Writing, for me, is slow. It ruminates. It collects. It builds. It destroys. It sharpens. It sculpts. It takes breaks. It walks the dog. It goes to Kendall Square to see RBG or Fresh Pond to see Ocean’s 8. Improv doesn’t have the time or space to do any of that. It just does.

Last week, we did an exercise called Emotional Hitchhiker. There were four chairs. One was empty and reserved for “the hitchhiker,” who’d thumb at the car (ie. the other three seats) then get in, buckle up, and enter with a clear emotion in mind—not so much a character but a driving emotion, so to speak. The other three in the car were supposed to mirror the hitchhiker’s emotion and energy and physicality and then build conversations and characters as they drove along. It was dauntingly fast-paced, and it quickly felt more like acting than improvising—until our teacher gave us some comforting advice.

“Everything you need to do scene-work is already inside you. You don’t need anything else. You’re already in great shape as is. Just really listen and react and keep Yes And-ing.”

The scene-work felt scary, especially after our first class where we mostly just threw imaginary balls around and made weird noises. I hopped in the car essentially as Joy from Inside Out—pure, eager, bubbly, fist-pumpin’ joy. And in the spirit of Yes And-ing, I quickly became overly agreeable about the music playing from the car’s speakers (Madonna and Cher, apparently. So much so that we drove to a Madonna concert.)

It was weirdly liberating to drive along not knowing where we were going—with complete strangers (in-the-car strangers and in-the-class strangers). It was comforting to know that the less you tried to be funny and the more you tried to be present, the better the scene was. It was comforting to see how other people asserted themselves in the front seat before I become the driver myself. And it was comforting, as an introvert at heart with little stage experience, to hear our teacher’s advice that everything you need is already inside you.

Emotional Hitchhiker immediately reminded me of two things: 1. something Matt Walsh said on Off Camera a ways back and 2. something Alannis Morissette recently said on Sharon Salzberg’s podcast. Walsh talks about improv and being enough on stage. Morissette talks about her creative process, collaboration, and referencesI shit you not the driver’s seat:

You are enough. You don’t have to put on a show or develop tons more knowledge or fake anything, and you have plenty of life experience in your brain. So just use that. And respond how you would respond. (14:45—16:46)

The idea of being able to show up AND surrender at the same time. It’s being very alert. It’s very feminine for me, too. It’s very receptive. Clear the mind completely and just let whatever needs to come through in any given moment come through. It’s using the mind as a filter. My brain becomes secondary so that I can articulate something or choose words. But the actual message of the current is in the driver’s seat. 

I left class, got home, and start writing a bigger essay for school in the fall about improv.  I didn’t know where to start or where to go. So I stuck out my thumb and trusted whatever driver picked me up.

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